My jury’s 30 and 3 tips

 Версия на русском 

Beautiful and exciting though life is, it has a plentiful stock of unpredictable twists and dizzying turns. And, quite frankly, if someone had told me some 20 years ago (upon conducting my first lesson) that I would be an English teacher for long, I would have heartily, if not condescendingly, laughed. However, after several starts and temporary pauses, my teaching career has been irrevocably chosen. Why? In retrospect, it seems that it was my students who made me make that choice.

I bet each and every one of us at least once heard about the jury system. The notion has it that it is not the bench and the bar who deliver that all-important verdict of guilty or not guilty. Yes, the judge ensures the court hearing follows all legal procedures; the prosecutor presents accusatory evidence; the defense lawyer tries to prove the defendant’s innocence. But, at the end of the day, it all boils down to those members of the jury who will decide the defendant’s fate.

I happen to believe that at times we get too dogmatic in terms of the pedagogical knowledge and principles we were fostered with. Still, if we are open and sensitive to our students, then we will be bound to sooner or later dare to review some of those axioms. Luckily, I have been blissfully blessed with a number of stunningly competent and inspiring teachers. Nevertheless, the very best teacher in my life has been or rather have been… my students. Here is what they have taught me.

I. ATTITUDE.

1. Different firms and organisations tend to distinguish their “VIP clients” on a basis of various criteria: income levels, connections, the amount of business they generate, etc. However, I reckon it is a dangerous concept, as it implies that your other customers are “non-VIP”, “less-VIP”, “under-VIP” or simply “ordinary” clients. Quite the opposite, each and every student deserves our top attitude. So, I came to never divide my students into “important” or “very important”. All of them are. And the most important one? The student who I am teaching NOW. No matter how old they are or what their social or corporate position is, if they are in my lesson now, they are my ultimate VIPs.

2. In a lesson my students are more important than I am. They owe me nothing, what is more, they pay their hard-earned money to be taught. I owe them an awful lot. They have dared to trust me. They have come to say: “Help us”. Sometimes they admit it is their last attempt to learn English. So, I cannot dare betray my student’s confidence, I treasure it! Rephrasing Antoine De Saint-Exupery, we are responsible for those who trust us.

3. I’m not the best teacher. But I will give them no less than 100% of what I am pedagogically capable of.

4. I never sit down in my classes, maybe with some individual students who ask me to do so. Otherwise, I am always on my feet. Isn’t it interesting that in really good hotels we are usually met and greeted by the standing staff? Apart from showing respect, standing helps you to mobilise yourself and (teachers, let’s be honest!) not to fall asleep during one of the classes throughout a long working day. Then, if you are sitting, you will doubtedly stir to write on the whiteboard a word the students are interested in. Last, but not least, when you are standing, you will be bound to walk around the classroom, and thus being equally exposed to different students language production.

5. Give them more than they expect. I always try to offer my students a 5-minute-or-so time bonus. Someone gave the following definition to good service. Good service is when A) you do what you promise and B) give a bit more than it is expected.

6. Do all you humanly can NOT to penalise your students. Some schools are obsessed with punishing their students for being late or cancelling their lessons. Admittedly, sometimes the temptation to do so is great. Statistically, however, a student who has been fined does not last long. One month, perhaps, but not much longer. It is way better to lose a battle and to keep a student.

7. Value your student’s money. Sometimes students pay for a certain amount of classes, but something else comes up and, consequently, they are unable to attend. Either return this money or let them use it again whenever they opt for resuming their learning endeavor. Either way, keep your financial records in an orderly and meticulous way. You may well need to remember one year later that you owe an old student of yours 2 more classes. But their positive surprise and heartfelt gratitude are definitely worthwhile the effort! All in all, business is not about making people pay, it is about making them happy and satisfied. If they are, they will be only happy to exchange their money for your services.

8. It is best to turn off your mobile during the lesson and not to answer your phone calls. Honestly, it is one of the most powerful demonstrations of our students’ real significance. But what if the call has to do with a matter of life and death? Ask your friends or relatives to dial you several times then.

9. Be on fire at ALL times! They must sense that you are enjoying your lesson with them more than anything else, be that a big football match or your friend’s birthday. As someone said: “If you are not fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm” (or, in our case, rejected by your students.)

10. Do not tell your students how busy or hard-working you are. If it is true, they will notice that themselves. Still, what’s the point? Funny though it might be, people tend to think that they are the busiest and hardest working individuals anyway. So, do not even try to come across as “important”. It looks and sounds pathetic. Never forget, in your class your students are the most important people, not you.

11. Praise them for their achievements, shoulder responsibility for their failures. Do not blame them for poor results. Do say sorry if they have underperformed somewhere. Let’s be mature sports coaches rather than hypocritical politicians.

12. There are few more disheartening and annoying things as teachers stealing glances at their watch (or a classroom clock for that matter.) So, come up with some other undetected ways of finding out the time – on your laptop or while your students are busy completing a writing task.

13. Do not put any pressure on your students in terms of increasing the number and/or duration of their classes. It has to be their initiative, or it feels like our attempt to trick them into paying more.

14. Always smile! Not only is it good for the overall classroom atmosphere, but it is healthy as well.

15. Finally, whenever your students wish to terminate their studying, always say goodbye gracefully. Even if you are certain they are doing so prematurely, who knows, maybe they will get back again, with a fresh appreciation of your teaching talent. Remember, they owe us nothing, we owe them everything. Once again, just go on giving them 100% in any given lesson. After all, isn’t it what we have – always one lesson with our invariably most important student? One final thought. Knowing the language and having the right attitude to the student are the 49% and 51% components of the successful teaching mix. It is just that I still do not know which ingredient accounts for which number.

II. LESSON.

16. First of all, never ever come unprepared for your class. Your students will be more than willing to forgive you any mistakes or flaws in the future, but NOT this deadliest one – showing up unprepared for the lesson. Personally, I need 1 hour for a 1-hour class to feel confident and not be ashamed of hackwork.

17. Read ahead the materials you are using with your various students in your copious groups. Listen to the lesson audio recordings on your MP3-player or mobile. It will be of paramount importance while readying for a class on those crazy days when even 1 extra second of preparation is priceless.

18. Make your students speak!!! 50% of the time, at the very least, through the prism of pairwork. Not just translate or repeat, but to actually and consciously speak. Some people claim it is impossible, especially with lower levels, but it is just a matter of prioritising and preparation. Whatever the predominantly shared opinions, our students need to be able to express themselves, first and foremost. Do not forget, Ukraine has a post-Soviet Union past. It seems all totalitarian regimes have this policy – to pretend they are teaching foreign languages, while leaving student incapable of speaking (“there’s no way they should be able to blab out any sensitive information to the outside enemies!”). Therefore, all my lessons tend to be half speaking clubs. Without this 50%-student-speaking component I consider a class to be a failure for me and time and money wasted for my students.

19. To achieve this ambitious goal of 50%-student-speaking time, we simply cannot ignore pairwork and groupwork. Despite some fears and prejudices (“who will correct my mistakes?” or “I want the teacher to listen to me all the time while I am speaking!”) this is the only realistic chance to let students overcome the speaking barrier and communicate fluently and fearlessly. After all, this kind of communication is that of the real life.

20. Make your lessons interesting. To make mine, I normally prepare 3 types of questions. A) Based on some currently ongoing and thus widely appealing events: song contests, sports competitions, seasonal celebrations, recent films or students’ latest holidays usually work out just fine. B) Lead-in questions, loosely connected to the topic of the lesson. If the topic reads “Money”, why not try the following arsenal of questions: “When was the first time you earned some money and what did you do with it?” “Should parents pay their children for doing the housework?” “Should children be given money for good marks at school?” “Should parents always financially help their grown-up children?” C) Personalised questions, derived from the actual topic of the lesson. Do not be afraid to change the questions in the books. Drop the dull or obvious ones. Remember: if you find the questions boring, so will your students. Never ask: “Is money important to you?” Instead, why not throw in this one: “How much money do you need to be happy?” Mind you, some questions usually turn out to be disliked by some, so do always have some spare fresh and interesting questions, just in case.

21. Do not discuss politics. Forget about the existence of Ukrainian politicians as such. For one thing, they deserve it. Also, it will safeguard you from entering a minefield, which, once detonated, can leave lingering and hardly repairable traces.

22. The sublime Roald Dahl, an unparallelled master of unpredictability in his stories, once said: “The greatest fear I have is of boring the reader.” So, let’s make our lessons unpredictable. They say people need 2 things to feel comfortable, that stability and unpredictability. Thus even simply changing the order of your usual classroom activities (listening, grammar, writing, speaking, you name it) kills two birds with one stone. Our students are happy, as all their linguistic muscles have been massaged (stability), though not in a typical manner (unpredictability). To illustrate, at times I deliberately introduce grammar topics at the end of the lesson. Contrary to a commonly held view, the students are perfectly perceptive and fresh, as long as your lesson is not boring.

23. Do not spend time explaining too much. A wide-spread pattern of teachers’ wishful thinking is this: “I will give them the most thorough and detailed explanation they have ever heard, upon which they are bound to remember this topic for good.” Wrong. With all respect to us, our students are likely to completely or partially forget this splendidly delivered lecture. On average, students need to understand a topic 5 times to really understand it. And rather than waste precious minutes explaining a lot, get them to practise so that they are ready to comprehend and use this particular topic. Lecturing (or as one native speaker referred to it, “chalking and talking”) is almost always a waste of time. Remember, 5 minutes of drilling a topic beats 30 minutes of lecturing about it.

24. Another example of unrealistic expectations is the belief that our students (we are not referring to school students now) will do all homework we assign them. Therefore, one of the arguably least efficient ways to start your class is by asking: “Well, have you done your homework?” I guess it takes a degree of humility to swallow the fact that English (or any other foreign language) is not the first priority in our students’ lives. Anyway, I choose not to design homework-centered lessons. Let them be life-centered instead!

25. However, when the people do manage to complete their homework (albeit just a tiny part of it), never fail to show your appreciation. Openly admire and praise them for their efforts. When handed in some written assignments, I always, having checked them, write “Thank you!”

26. Also, do not get over-personal. I have discovered that telling too many stories about ourselves might be counter-productive. Sometimes the best thing is to simply shut up and listen to your students. Remember, it is easy to find those who speak, it is incomparably harder to discover those who can lend you an ear. And listening attentively always pays off providing you with precious clues and insights as for the next questions to ask.

27. Coping with mistakes is a hugely controversial issue. Opinions range from correcting all flaws, however minute they might be, to totally ignoring them: “What’s the point, people won’t remember those corrections anyway.” However, having been repeatedly asked by my students to correct their mistakes, I simply cannot help doing that. After all, don’t our students (our jury) know better how they learn? Still, my error correcting practices have evolved over time into the following scheme. I let my students talk uninterruptedly (it is precisely what they need to do in real life), pausing to correct only the gravest problems. At the same time, whilst listening to my students, I keep jotting down some most typical shortcomings (normally not more than 7 in a lesson; apparently, it is humanly impossible to memorise more than 7 words or phrases in one sitting anyway). It is these linguistic culprits we focus on at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next one. What is more, I email these “diagnosed” weak areas to my students, giving them a chance to go on methodically fighting with and eliminating those entrenched mistakes in an otherwise unwinnable war. To further guarantee our victory, I keep reviewing these mistakes from start to finish. At the end of our cooperation my students normally get an alphabetically arranged list of their previous mistakes - another opportunity to continue battling them on their own.

28. Motivate your students. I hope for all the world that my lessons are not lessons as such, but rather small patches of real life. Anyway, I purpose to make my students forget that they are in a lesson, captivated and carried away by the topics, pace, unpredictability of the lesson. However, we need to always bear in mind that our biggest role in helping our students master a foreign tongue is motivation. As someone said: “The doctor’s aim is not to harm the patient, and the body will do the rest by recovering itself.” Even if a bit exaggerated, this thought may be extrapolated to the teaching job. Ultimately, teaching boils down to motivating, and our students will inevitably move closer to their linguistic aims, everyone at their own pace.

29. Finally, to continuously come up with fresh and practical lesson-conducting ideas, learn from others. Not necessarily from language teachers (perhaps the person whose pedagogical approaches and cleverly unpredictable lesson tricks still inspire me was my high school history teacher). And not necessarily teachers, but trainers, sports coaches or tour guides! It is simply stunning how many new insights are there waiting for us, if we are willing to learn, of course. So, why not visit your peer teacher’s class, watch a lesson on the Internet, attend a chocolate-making training or go on an excursion? There is always someone who is more experienced than we are and whose expertise, enthusiasm and people skills can make us a better teacher.

 III. LANGUAGE.

30. Last but far from least, I must go on polishing my language skills and enrich the language itself. I believe that we, language teachers, need to have self-development plans. I would go as far as to say that if we do not have these, then, most likely and sadly, we have stopped developing and started… degrading. To ensure my development, I routinely watch CCN and BBC channels, read books in English, create my own dictionaries with some interesting words and phrases, or, admittedly, words I have recurring difficulties with. Another thing which aids greatly is to ask your colleagues to correct your mistakes which they notice. When Stalin made mistakes while speaking in Russian (understandably, for he was not a native Russian speaker, after all), his leaders had no other option but to repeat those incorrect stress patterns or endings. If they had done the opposite, they would have been accused of disloyalty and consequently liquidated. Arrogance and self-complacency breed absurdity. No correction, no perfection. Over and over, I find it so sobering, humbling and action-prompting to remember: I am not the best teacher, but my students trust me and need my help. So, I cannot let them down, I must give them 100% of what I have, and it is my unceasing obligation to continue improving and enhancing my linguistic assets.

 

P.S. If we put together the first letters of the words Attitude, Lesson, Language, they will read ALL. I have just outlined my ALL-principle with its 30-item content. Well, it is up to you to breathe life and essence in your ALL-principle, but do remember not to lose sight of these 3 key things at the core of it.

1. Mind your attitude to your students. Just “good” is not good enough. It has to be the best of breed.

2. Let your lessons be always interesting, dynamic and fresh, and make sure your students speak at least 50% of the time, through the prism of pairwork.

3. Never ever stop developing, there is always room for improvement! Mind you, you are not the best teacher. Who is? We never know, there are many real virtuosos. But we are bound to be a better teacher tomorrow, if we better ourselves today. Good luck!

Контакты

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г.Киев, м. Арсенальная,

ул.Ивана Мазепы 3, оф.72 

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